Note to my friends: The sermon I preached this Sunday represents yet another attempt to explain the life-changing conversion that happened to me in Alaska. After I preached it, I could almost feel two of my Alaska friends sitting on either side of me saying, "You know, Carol, you've idealized us again. We're really not that hot." I almost burst out laughing as I apologized, once again, for my enthusiasm.
The Tattered Robe
Today I would like to say a few words about fasting. How many of you know how many days each year the Episcopal Church strongly urges us to fast? There are only two: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Most people don’t fast on either one, which is to say that fasting is a tradition that has mostly died out among today’s modern Christians. We worry too much about nutrition. Our lifestyle calls us to be full, not empty.
As it happens, I do fast on those days unless I am sick, a very moderate fast, nothing to brag about. I do it because fasting is very hard for me. I get grumpy when I don’t have anything to eat and fasting compels me to live with a side of myself that I would rather not. But this is not the only reason I fast. In emptying myself of earthly nourishment, and feeling grouchy, I begin to know without a shadow of a doubt that I would be toast without God.
Quite a number of years ago now, there was an Ash Wednesday when I was feeling pretty down to begin with and when I added not eating, I felt really bad. I wondered how I was going to get through the day. But because I had given the day to God, I was in for a surprise. It came to me in prayer that most of the people in this world don’t get enough to eat and they work harder than I do, because they have to work in the fields and not in front of an amusing computer. The world market lets no one rest anymore and if I don’t work my farm, an army of overnourished Americans in athletic clothes is going to turn up full of entrepreneurial ideas about my improvement and if I let down my guard, they’ll have my farm because they have money and top nutrition and I don’t and so I must keep working, as best as I can, no matter how I feel and even though I am undernourished, because if I don’t remain competitive, it will be all over for me. And the only way I as a poor person can do this is to throw myself into the arms of God.
I felt very humbled by my itty bitty very moderate Ash Wednesday fast in the face of so much injustice. I also realized my own inability to do much about it. Yes, I could give money and food, but I couldn’t change the system. I couldn’t be Don Quixote and tilt my lance at global market forces. Then I thought of Jesus. He didn’t change the system either. He taught people how to live in it. He fed people and he healed people and he taught them to pray. Maybe, I thought, I’m not supposed to change the world. Maybe I’m supposed to let God change me.
I don’t mean “change” in some big political way. I mean change in the way nature means it. The essence of the universe is change. Seasons change. People grow. Nothing stays the same. We are a nomadic people. So when I say “let God change me,” I’m saying that the only bad habit I’m letting go of is my illusions of control and stability. The technical term for this gift is repentance. Repentance is not about breast-beating or guilt trips. Repentance just means letting go of my own agenda. It’s admitting that I don’t know as much as I thought I did.
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death--
even death on a cross.
The first time I read this passage in church, I actually wept. I don’t talk about these words very much, but they’ve sat at the center of my prayers for years. I can’t talk about them, because in a world full of power and might, where three billion people are impoverished so that a few rich folk can have what they want, the sheer emptiness of Jesus’ gift broke my heart. Emptiness, you know, is the Buddhist path to Enlightenment, and it is in emptiness, St. Paul says, that Christians will not only find God, they will become God. God is not the master of the universe; God is its slave. We were created to help others. We were created not to rise to the top of the class, but to live fully among the others in it.
This is radical stuff for me. I have lived almost all of my life as part of an ethic of attainment, and such is the blindness of that ethic that it is easy to see Union with God as the ultimate attainment, the ultimate ego experience. That is why the rest of the passage is so important. To become one with God means becoming a slave. In the market economy, in the economy of dominance, to be a slave is a bad thing, because in that culture, a slave exists only so that others may dominate and make use of me. Humility, in the ethic of attainment, is learning how to be a good winner. Humiliation is what befalls slaves. The culture of attainment wants humility without humiliation. Having experienced both, I can tell you that it isn’t going to happen that way.
But the slaves also know, better than anyone else, what’s really going on. Their very lives depend upon being awake, upon knowing what’s going on. They have no pretensions, no Joneses to keep up with, no illusions that God has chosen them to make fortunes. They have only despair, or faith in a God who will save them.
In the early Church, especially when it was taken over by Rome and popes and priests became emperors and proconsuls, a great many Christians chose to live with nothing. They gave up sex, money, clothes, privilege, all for the sake of serving Christ Jesus. In my culture of attainment, all this just seemed loopy. Why would one choose to live as a poor person? To not enjoy sex? To call their tattered cloaks “royal robes?” I could understand the element of protest: people going off to the desert because they did not like what the ecclesiastical hierarchy was doing to their radical equality, but protest is only the beginning. Protest is still about me. In God’s world, protest is turned into love: the hungry receive bread, the thirsty water, the sick their health. That is how we know God, says St. Augustine, for with God there is always a spirit of charity. Those who were divided become one. The tattered robe is us and God is the great patch maker.
I had to leave home to see this. No matter how hard I tried to find God in the culture of attainment, I was always arguing with that culture, seeing the divine in reaction to it. God is not a reaction either. God is a living presence. And so, just as God called Abraham into a new land when Abraham was stuck, so did God call me. I fell in love with Alaska, and after a long time, God finally put me in the very place where I could see her.
In Alaska God showed me what reality looks like. The experience is still so new and so transformative that I can but share the sketchiest set of words to describe what happened, but here are the words that shimmered through my days and in my prayers: fear, strangeness, love, gratitude, understanding, decency, kindness, diversity living world, blessing, friendship, humility, poverty, wisdom beauty. In a Native village, I was among people with far less formal education than I, but whose wisdom left me speechless. Everyone, rich and poor, lived simply, because, at least as far as I understood it, to flaunt difference was to threaten consensus. People also talked less, for to talk is to put oneself over others, and this, too, threatened the consensus. It was not an ideal world, it was a human world and therefore, there was sin as well as grace: kids were self centered, parents drank, people had to work hard to survive, bad stuff happened, but there were no scapegoats. People were who they were. Life was both hard and precious. It was inclusive. In a village of 200 people were many races, ages, abilities, and, I think, sexual orientations too. Everyone was essential. Two days before I left, Blind Louie brought in the biggest haul of silvers. In this wild place, the earth is alive and still creating itself. New islands and meadows were being born right before our eyes. Darting swallows flew with me on my walks snapping up mosquitoes on the wing; bears made special guest appearances at the airport to scare brash and brave young boys. Gnats and noseeums reminded me that I’m part of the food chain. And always, the Yukon River flowed in beauty, like the lifestream of the world and there was dirt under my feet and trees and God was everywhere and I saw that Bible was true in the same way that Native myths were true and that the two sets of stories were woven together. We talked in church about a living God. We talked about choosing the Good and how God was with us when we were afraid.
I have wept as construction crews and market forces have torn up my beloved California and in Alaska which, for the moment, is still wild, I knew I stood in the Promised Land. God gave me Alaska to love, not to own. She’s not mine. She’s God’s country.
Arriving back home was a spiritual shock. I woke up and stretched out my arms toward God and found the politics of God instead. It felt to me as if a Plexiglas shield had been erected to manage God, to admit only those parts of the divine as were palatable to me. Belief in God being strictly optional, the Divine Mind of the Universe was reduced to one more lifestyle option.
Beware, I say to my lower 48 friends both on the right and on the left, beware of a God who agrees too much with you. That was what Jesus was warning the Pharisees in this morning’s Gospel. In Jesus’ time, the Pharisees were the gatekeepers of political correctness and identity politics. They were so sure they were right that they could not imagine that God’s mind might differ from their own. And so they missed the living God entirely, even when God was sitting at their dinner table and talkin’ trash with them in the Temple. The Pharisees were the liberals. The Sadducees, the conservatives, just saw God as supporting their hierarchy and knew, before it all started, that nothing good ever came from Nazareth. If this sounds familiar it should. The same church politics that are tearing us apart today were alive and well in Jesus’ time.
It tells you how patient God is if God has been putting up with this nonsense for 2000 years. It takes time to grow and if repentance is sweet, it does not mean that any of us has to be sweet about it. Remember the reading from Exodus. The Israelites complain in the desert. The older son in the Gospel parable doesn’t want to work in the Vineyard. The younger son is nice to his dad and does nothing. The Bible says, throw all your gripes to the universe. Complaint is great – it’s the big bang of spiritual growth. But if the universe started with a bang, there would be no universe if it stopped there. During the forty years that the Israelites were in the desert, God turned rocks into water and dropped food from heaven. The test for them was: would they allow their culture of complaint to be transformed by love? Could they get over it? In true human fashion, some could, some couldn’t.
I could go on and on. But I’m going to stop. Knowing the Divine Mind is the work of a lifetime. So now that I’ve said all this, I ask you to forget it. Forget all of it. But do remember this: Love is the glory of God. God gives that love to all. All you need is Love. Amen.